Midway through the WNBA season, the Washington Mystics are about half as good as they could be. So it's only right that their record is exactly .500.
What to make of them? In 16 games, the Mystics have managed to be equally promising and underachieving; at 8-8 they have beaten some of the top teams in the league, and yet they are patently capable of more. Still unanswered is the chronic question, will this be the reversal of fortune the franchise has hoped for, or yet another season of mediocrity?
"Talk to me in a couple more games," Chamique Holdsclaw said. "I'm not going to sit here and say "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" I've been on too many losing teams here."
This much can be said with certainty: The Mystics are immensely talented, with 11 players capable of starting and a first-year coach, Michael Adams, who shows talent too. They've had three straight big wins in the space of a week: They beat the Indiana Fever, arguably the best team in the East, followed by the Seattle Storm, arguably the best team in the West, and the New York Liberty on the road, to climb out of the cellar and back into playoff contention.
But even in the midst of a win streak, there are as many reasons for caution as for hope. The Mystics continue to show some troubling tendencies (and by that I don't mean Alana Beard's scoring woes, which are obviously temporary and strictly mental. Young lady, get that mess out of your head). The main impression the Mystics give is that they're inconsistent. Flaky. Slap dash, and sort of careless. They're a quick shooting team, and a jump shooting one, and you can never be certain if they're going to knock one down, or throw one away. They're a team that rarely does anything the same way twice.
They're good, but not yet particularly sound. They've lost as many games they should have won because they haven't done the small, fundamental things right.
They're an iffy free throw shooting team -- on the rare occasion that they actually get to the line. The Mystics' fondness for the jumper means they've been to the free throw line just 295 times in 18 games, while opponents have visited there 326 times. Furthermore, 100 of those attempts were from one player, Holdsclaw, and another 60 have come from rookie Beard, the only two players who consistently attack.
Also, they're a positively lousy rebounding team, given their size. You don't win games on first shots, and the Mystics apparently have yet to learn that. Their front court of Nakia Sanford, Murriel Page and Chasity Melvin ought to be terrific, but it's underutilized and underperforming. Again, Holdsclaw and Beard are doing the lion's share of the work: Holdsclaw has 138 boards, Beard has 69. Holdsclaw is forced to rebound like a five player, while scoring like a three. Where's the front court?
"We've got to get bigger inside," Holdsclaw says, and by that she doesn't mean taller. She means their presence has to grow, and she's absolutely right.
The problem may be a simple matter of focus. The post appears to be the third thought on every possession. Holdsclaw or Beard are invariably the first thought, and the second thought is to go to the perimeter to Tamicha Jackson, Coco Miller or Stacy Dales-Schuman. It's an axiom: When a front court doesn't get enough touches, it tends to shut down and stop working as hard. Eventually everything declines, including rebounding.
The Mystics can't make a playoff run without correcting these things. Unless they rebound, get to the free throw line, and share more of the load with the front court, it's simply not going to happen. They can survive one of those flaws, or even two, but not three.
A team that rarely does anything the same way twice, that alternates disciplined possessions with undisciplined ones, is usually a team that needs to be better coached. These things are a matter of daily habit and attention to detail, and habits are dictated and enforced by the coaching staff. Players simply won't do it on their own, no matter how well intentioned or hard working.
In fairness to Adams, he's had an awful lot to do, and not much time to do it. He's had to break himself in as a head coach, get to know his players, install a system, and develop his rotations. All in a short half summer. He's had to try to convert the Mystics' paper assets into a living breathing team on the basketball floor.
"Paper is paper," Holdsclaw says. "It's harder than it looks. You have to mesh talent and personalities, different people have to handle different things, and that just takes time."
The good news is they have assets all over the floor, from Kayla Chones to Miller and back, and chemistry as well. Dales-Schuman is a purely unselfish player who leads the team in assists, Beard is a slasher, unstoppable at times, Sanford and Melvin are agile center-forwards who fight, and Page is an underrated scorer who shoots nearly 50 percent for her career and the consummate teammate.
"People don't know how much she does for my game," Holdsclaw says. "They don't know."
Adams has given them an offensive flexibility that's lovely to watch; they're equally effective when they push the ball on the break, or in the half court. You can see what he's after -- the trick is to practice it better.
The Mystics' deficiencies are correctable, and it may be that all they need is time. Adams is as much of a rookie as Beard, and he admits it. "It is what it is," Adams says. "A lot of it has to do with me."
His frankness is a good sign. Teams that duck issues lose. Teams that confront them usually win.
"We're not satisfied," said Adams, leaning against a wall in the guts of Madison Square Garden after beating the Liberty. "To get to .500 was one goal, and it took us awhile to get there. Now the goal is to get over, and to stay there."
Everything is fixable. The question is, will they fix it in time to make a run this season?